I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been to Barcelona. It all started when I was eleven. My dad had died a few months earlier so Mum decided a Spring holiday to the Costa Dorada would be a boost for both of us. We stayed at the cheap and cheerful Hotel Internacional in Calella de la Costa; went up the Costa Brava coast to Pineda (where I loved the trampolines on the beach), Blanes (fish market), Tossa (rocky coves), Lloret, and as far as San Feliu de Guixols; another day we went to Montserrat (still haven’t been back and I really want to); another day to Gerona (I felt so cosmopolitan); and yet another to Barcelona, where in a whirlwind tour that seemed to last all day and all night we saw the Ramblas, the Sagrada Familia, did a harbour tour on a little boat, saw the Spanish Village, and ended up watching a horse show at Montjuic which culminated with the stunning magic fountain display. I slept all the way home but I don’t think I had ever had such an exciting day.
Since then Mrs Chrisparkle and I have been back to Calella, and had a couple of days in Barcelona; we’ve stopped off there on a number of cruises, and we did once have a long weekend there too. So we really feel an affinity for the city; and whenever we go there on a cruise, we basically have the same routine – a very leisurely walk up the Ramblas; get lunch at El Corte Ingles food hall; and either visit the Sagrada Familia or the Seu Cathedral en route back.
If you get the “disorganised” tour from the ship – basically a transfer in and out of town – you’re disgorged at the bottom of the Ramblas, near the splendidly marine monument to Christopher Columbus. The old Customs House greets you in its stately glory too. Near here, you can go out into the tourist trap haven that houses the Maremagnum shopping complex. On a sunny day, it looks very enticing. However, I can only recommend a quick wander around and then back into town. Do not, as we did some years ago, have lunch at one of the restaurants. The food was run of the mill, and the service slow, brutish and off-hand. It was one of those rare occasions when I deliberately didn’t leave a tip as we had been treated so poorly. The waiter looked disappointedly at the cash we had left and remonstrated on our way out with the words, “but service isn’t included” to which I replied, “you’re telling me!” Never again.
A gentle stroll in the winter sunshine up the Ramblas is the perfect relaxation exercise. Quieter than usual – it was rather early on a Monday morning – nevertheless the cafes, market stalls, and living statues all have that welcoming feeling, and it’s also a perfect opportunity for people-watching. I always love to catch sight of the stylised dragon emerging from the corner of the old umbrella shop at Plaça de la Boqueria. As we were there on 17th December, Santa Claus also had a big presence in the Ramblas, and was seen clambering in and out of many a balcony and window. Further up the Ramblas and we took a diversion into the food market of Sant Josep, always a colourful and assault of the senses – and mostly it smells ok too. Back on the Ramblas, past the stalls selling guinea pigs, bunny rabbits and fishy-wishies (sorry I couldn’t help myself) which looks anomalous today to a Brit abroad, and upward to the Plaça de Catalunya at the top end.
This is normally a very welcoming sight, but it had been largely boarded over for some exhibition or other. Still it makes a useful place for a rest, and to devour the lunch titbits that we had bought at El Corte Ingles, which has a pretty substantial separate gluten-free area in the foodhall. Suitably nourished, we decided to go to the Sagrada Familia, but we wanted to go by metro. Plaça de Catalunya has one of the largest and most useful metro stations, so we headed into the bowels of the earth to try to work out how to buy tickets. There were seven of us, and there had been a bit of a kerfuffle at one stage as one of us got lost and another tripped over, so we must have looked like the tourist family from hell. Our defensive guard was down as we were dusting each other off and counting how many children were left and thus we forgot about being aware of our environment. Enter a gentleman wearing a uniform who was very helpful to guide us through the intricacies of the metro system. Mrs C and I are always worried about this – as we remember the “helpful gentleman” in Paris back in 1985 who guided us through the ticket buying process and we ended up with an invalid ticket for which we had to pay him top price, and all the ticket inspectors at Charles de Gaulle airport were just waiting to fleece every tourist as they knew we’d all been caught out. Not a very pleasant experience. However, this Barcelona guy seemed genuine. Or at least until after we’d done the deal when he then asked for some money for his help. That was when I realised the uniform was make-believe. Sigh, caught again, I thought. Nevertheless, his advice was good, and he didn’t rip us off, and when we showed our tickets to the ticket inspectors, they were obviously valid. Phew!
When you finally find your way in to the Sagrada Familia, and your heart has survived the double-take at the entrance prices, it’s just magnificent. We’ve been inside before but I can’t remember it looking so beautiful. The reflected light through the windows throws up a myriad of colours against the plain background of the walls and it really is breathtaking. It stuns you into silence. The place just has a feeling of overwhelming majesty. The last time we took the lift up one of the towers, the weird Gaudi shapes and angles unsettled my stomach and made me feel quite nauseous! Not so this time. It’s very exciting being up at the top, and even though it got a bit confusing as to which way you could walk around – and the space is very limited too – it was a complete thrill. If there’s a queue to go up, it’s definitely worth the wait. Outside the church there’s a lot of scaffolding and some plucky guys were swaying in the breeze all strapped up doing their work. That sure takes some guts.
And that was basically it. Afterwards we just got the metro back to Catalunya and retraced our steps towards the port. We did go slightly off route to see the Christmas displays outside the Palau de la Generalitat, which were highly original and reminded me of nativity scenes on space-age TV sets. They were, of course, giant Christmas tree baubles, how stupid of me. We didn’t take the opportunity to eat out this time, or spend large numbers of euros on copious quantities of cava sangria on the pavement. If you haven’t done that before, I can recommend it as good fun! But we thought we’d set a good example to the nieces, and we returned to the ship as sober as the day we were born.